You Are What You Watch? The Social Effects of TV
There’s new evidence that viewing habits can affect your thinking, political preferences, even cognitive ability.
JONATHAN ROTHWELL / JULY 25, 2019
Other than sleeping and working, Americans are more likely to watch television than engage in any other activity.
A wave of new social science research shows that the quality of shows can influence us in important ways, shaping our thinking and political preferences, even affecting our cognitive ability.
In this so-called golden age of television, some critics have pointed out that the best of the form is equivalent to the most enriching novels. And high-quality programming for children can be educational. But the latest evidence also suggests there can be negative consequences to our abundant watching, particularly when the shows are mostly entertainment.
The harm seems to come not so much from the content itself but from the fact that it replaces more enlightening ways of spending time.
‘Sesame Street’ as a social experiment
Cognitive ability is a complex characteristic that emerges from interactions between biological dispositions, nutrition and health, parenting behaviors, formal and informal educational opportunities, and culture.
Studying the connection between intelligence and television consumption is far from straightforward, but researchers have developed compelling ways to isolate the effects of television.
Some of the best research has been done on the television program “Sesame Street.” The show, which began in 1969, was meant to develop early literacy, numeracy and emotional skills for children of preschool age. A detailed analysis of the show’s content in its first and second years reveals that 80 percent of the program was dedicated to those goals, with the rest meant to entertain.
Researchers randomly assigned groups of low-income children age 3 to 5 into an experimental group and a control group. In the experimental group, parents were given access to the show if they lacked it and encouraged in person once a month to have their children watch the show.
Almost all (93 percent) parents of children in the experimental group reported that their children subsequently watched the show, compared with roughly one-third of children in the control group (35 percent). Among watchers, those in the experimental group also watched more frequently.
Over six months, from November 1970 to May 1971, the experimental group gained 5.4 I.Q. points — a large effect — relative to the control group and showed stronger evidence of learning along several other dimensions. Gains in cognitive performance were especially large for those who viewed the show frequently relative to those who did so rarely or never. A more recent meta-analysis of published research in 15 countries shows that “Sesame Street” has similar effects around the world.
In newly published research, the economists Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine examined longer-term effects of “Sesame Street” by comparing the educational outcomes of children and young adults in counties more or less likely to have access to the program during its early years. They found that children living in counties with better “Sesame Street” coverage were less likely to be held behind a grade level.
Other experimental research is consistent with the original “Sesame Street” findings. Low-income prekindergarten children scored higher on a social competence index six months after being randomly assigned to an experimental group, in which their parents were encouraged to replace age-inappropriate television with educational television.
Less reading and more watching
In Norway, and a handful of other developed countries, average I.Q. scores have declined slightly in recent years, after rising for many decades. This is known as the negative Flynn effect, a variation of the more famous Flynn effect, which is named after the psychologist who first published comprehensive evidence of I.Q. gains over time. Among native Norwegian men taking an exam at age 18 for military conscription, those born in 1974 scored two I.Q. points higher than those born in 1987.
In an academic article published this year, the Norwegian economist Oystein Hernaes and his co-authors attributed some of this decline in I.Q. scores to access to cable television, which also coincided with a sharp decline in reading. After the introduction of cable in 1981, Norwegian teenagers and young adults drastically cut back on daily time spent reading from 1980 to 2000, and increased their time watching TV. Moreover, relative to public television, cable television had far less educational content and was focused on entertainment and advertisements.
To estimate the effect of cable television on I.Q. scores, the Norwegian scholars analyzed data on the introduction of cable network infrastructure by municipality. They calculated years of exposure to cable by considering the age of eventual test takers when cable became available in their municipality. They controlled for any potential geographic bias by comparing siblings with greater or less exposure to cable television based on their age when cable infrastructure was put in.
They estimate that 10 years of exposure to cable television lowered I.Q. scores by 1.8 points. In related research, Mr. Hernaes finds that exposure to cable television reduced voter turnout in local elections.
A similar study was conducted by the Italian economist Ruben Durante and his co-authors and released in this month’s issue of the American Economic Review. They examined the introduction of Silvio Berlusconi’s television network, Mediaset, which specialized in light entertainment such as game shows featuring scantily clad women.
The economists document that Mediaset devoted almost no programming to educational content and did not offer news in early years, whereas its main competitor — the state-owned channel — devoted the majority of its airtime to news or educational material.
To study the effects of Mediaset, Mr. Durante and his co-authors obtained data on the location of Mediaset transmitters in 1985 and calculated the strength of the broadcasting signal in every Italian municipality based on the position of the transmitters and other technical features of the municipality.
They found that children raised in areas with greater access to Mediaset (a standard deviation in signal strength) had lower cognitive scores as adults by the equivalent of 3 to 4 I.Q. points.
People more exposed to Mediaset as children were also less likely to be civically engaged adults and more likely to vote for parties with populist tendencies like Forza Italia and the Five Star Movement.
A handful of American studies along these lines have focused on the political consequences that news media coverage can have, showing that exposure to Fox News could increase Republican Party vote shares significantly, and that exposure to MSNBC increased Democratic Party voting share (but with a much weaker effect).
Art and public health
We know that education increases cognitive ability, so it stands to reason that educational television would also have a positive effect.
Concerns about culture are hardly novel: Plato made a case for regulating the quality of artistic productions to avoid the corruption of youth and weakening of their character. Twenty-three centuries later, it is easier than ever to placate children as well as lose yourself in entertainment options — in the ocean of online videos, podcasts, cable, and streaming shows and movies.
These options are most likely harmless. Some provide relaxation, and others may modestly reshape cultural attitudes for the better; one study found that the introduction of cable TV empowered women in India. High-quality shows and films can be inspiring, even edifying.
Still, media providers and advertisers compete aggressively for our attention. Most lack the altruistic motivations that guided the producers of the original “Sesame Street.” The evidence from social science suggests that biased or sensationalist news programs may misinform citizens or discourage civic engagement, and that we should also be cautious about what we give up for the sake of entertainment.
Jonathan Rothwell is the Principal Economist at Gallup, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a visiting scholar at the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy. He is the author of a book, “A Republic of Equals: A Manifesto for a Just Society,” to be published by Princeton University Press in the fall, on the causes of income inequality. You can follow him on Twitter at @jtrothwell, and listen to his podcast, “Out of the Echo Chamber.”